The Velvet Underground, while being an iconic band, were also something of a personality battlefield. There were two main protagonists yearning for what the other brought to the table; Lou Reed’s gruff gorilla rock yearned for intellectual gravitas, whereas John Cale’s classical avant-garde yearned for distorted viola acceptance. When the inevitable split came, it saw the two men tread increasingly divergent paths, with Cage’s being arguably the more precarious.
In the vaults of the reissue business it’s common to dust off master tapes and repackage the original work in a shiny new box with little (if any) input from the artist. But this is John Cale and he does not do ‘easy’. M:FANS was borne as a result of Lou’s passing, which made Cale re-evaluate his solo album Music For A New Society, and respond in kind.
Music For A New Society was John Cale’s unique and ‘critically-acclaimed’ (ie. awkward and uncommercial) solo album from 1982. Part time capsule and part music therapy, it allows Cale to address what was – for him and the listener – one of his most testing and affecting releases. The benefit (or detraction) of having an album of re-workings alongside the original beholds the listener to ‘dodge’ between the two discs to compare the treatments.
Predominantly Music For A New Society features Cale’s baritone and piano accompanied later by expressionistic ghostly forms drifting across this elegant but uneasy wasteland. Personally he was in the throes of severe drug addiction, his relationships were failing and he was culturally adrift. Music For A New Society captures moods gentle and reflective, but which can suddenly turn on their heel to become dark, introspective and frightening often after lulling you in to a false sense of security.
Leading with the queasy pseudo-ballad about a mother leaving her children, Taking Your Life In Your Hands, getting a distorted remodel that lends a more sinister air to the original. Thoughtless Kind’s ticking spaciousness gets an almost dance reworking, while Close Watch is drenched in vocoder effects in queasy disco mode. Sanctus (Sanities) and Changes Made take things further to become strident, robotic David Bowie freak outs. Even the bedsit acoustic Chinese Envoy gets an upbeat groove slung across its shoulders.
The hymn-like If You Were Still Around loses its fragility to sound like late-period spectral Scott Walker. Broken Bird remains faithful to the original but appears more certain in its uncertainty. Elsewhere the paranoid synthetics of Library Of Force gets a megaphone David Lynch-ian voice. The only untouched song here is the rolling piano blues of Damn Life, and the female-fronted Risé, Sam and Rimsky Korsakov.
Cale, like other ’70s innovators (Bowie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel), understood the nuances of utilizing new electronic technology without making it seem dated, but resolutely exploratory and imaginative.
These records are the sound of a man on the precipice of sanity, looking out onto a clean, blank future and unsure where to place the first foot. Resolutely grim, it sits with the work of Joy Division, Nico (who he produced) and the bleakest of Bowie’s ‘Berlin-period’ but has a poetically redemptive power amidst the ashes of angst.
Music For A New Society and M:FANS are the sounds of exorcism and the healing of old wounds, as the debris of broken lives and song structures are punished and pushed into a corner. It could so easily have been an ill-fitting coat worn loose on the shoulders of the original’s stark beauty. But these slabs of noise, where Cale picks at the wires like a scab, scarring and slashing old canvases to remake the old, add to rather than re-hash his legacy.
John Cale’s 73 years haven’t always been kind to him, from the iconic start with The Velvet Undergound to a solo career beset with his own demons of addiction. But he has emerged as one of the last elder statesmen still above ground, and for his undiminished energy and musical curiousity we must be grateful. Lou, at least, would surely have been proud.